Last weekend a motley assortment of techies, artists, lockpickers, radio hams, academics, and activists descended on the Hotel Pennsylvania for the biannual Hackers On Planet Earth conference, organized by the magazine 2600. The conference is known for an anti-authoritarian attitude and an eclectic range of talks—speakers in the past have included Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple; Jello Biafra, co-founder of the Dead Kennedys; and Kevin Mitnick, a hacker who spent over two years on the run from the FBI. (I have presented talks at previous HOPEs too, discussing how best to talk to the press and some notable hacks of the Apollo space program.)
But, as always, the primary preoccupation of the conference was with security and privacy concerns, with amateur and professional researchers discussing vulnerabilities in UAVs, a widely deployed cable modem, and programmable logic controllers of the sort used to control prison doors. Other speakers discussed tools they had created to conceal information in files that appear to be malware (the idea being that because everyone with an email account is deluged in such spam, it’s not suspicious to receive these files, versus receiving an obviously encrypted message), high- and low-tech ways to help Middle Eastern protestors disseminate information, and how to avoid being detected in an age of electronic surveillance.
Several of the privacy talks also noted U.S. government’s evolving attitude to hackers: while once rather harsh, it’s now hard for the government to condemn privacy tools, and the people who make them, when it is celebrating dissidents who are challenging oppressive regimes around the world with the aid of those very tools. On the hacker side, while there is still a great deal of hostility and suspicion directed at the Establishment (the sentiment of many attendees could be gauged from the prominent display of posters campaigning for the release of Bradley Manning, the soldier accused of leaking files to Wikileaks,) several speakers spoke of effective collaborations with US-CERT, a division of the Department of Homeland Security, on working with vendors to patch serious security holes they discovered in products.
Stephen Cass is the special projects editor at IEEE Spectrum. He currently helms Spectrum's Hands On column, and is also responsible for interactive projects such as the Top Programming Languages app. He has a bachelor's degree in experimental physics from Trinity College Dublin.